Immediately following the May 19 matinee of "Love Letters" at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Colleen Dewhurst took a limousine to her farm in South Salem, N.Y. The 65-year-old actress -- who died of cancer there Thursday night -- had played her final performance, and she infused it with the same gusto she brought to a lifetime of roles ranging from Eugene O'Neill's heroines to Candice Bergen's mother in the CBS sitcom, "Murphy Brown."
"No one knew except those of us who were working with her really how ill she was and how all of the adrenalin was saved for when she went on stage," Hope Quackenbush, managing director of the Mechanic, said yesterday. "She was not well, but she was delivering every single night."
The unusual format of A. R. Gurney's "Love Letters" calls for two actors to sit side by side at a table and read 50 years of correspondence; Miss Dewhurst portrayed Melissa Gardner, a woman with a patrician pedigree and a rebellious, artistic bent. In terms of background, Miss Dewhurst had much more in common with Melissa than with the O'Neill women for which she was best known.
And yet, few would dispute that she was the pre-eminent interpreter of O'Neill's heroines. In Barbara Gelb's one-woman show, "My Gene," which came to Washington's Kennedy Center in 1987, Miss Dewhurst performed an abridged anthology of these roles. Focusing on O'Neill's third wife, Carlotta, "My Gene" was a lackluster script, but it came to vibrant life whenever Miss Dewhurst slipped into an O'Neill character -- reprising a bit of earthy Josie Hogan in "A Moon for the Misbegotten," for which she won a Tony in 1974, or giving a hint of the tormented Mary Tyrone she was to play on Broadway a year later in "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
After Mary Tyrone, which she alternated with the lighthearted role of the mother in O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness," Miss Dewhurst reportedly decided to give O'Neill a rest and try something different. "Murphy Brown" and "Love Letters" sprang from that decision, though in each case the characters were tough, spunky women, like the actress herself.
Those who saw Miss Dewhurst in "Love Letters" could probably guess that she and Melissa shared a similar spirit. It came across each time daredevil Melissa proposed some new mischief; it was evident in the sparkle in Miss Dewhurst's eyes and her throaty, complicitous laugh.
Nor does it seem coincidental that -- even though more than 100 actresses have played Melissa -- Miss Dewhurst held the record for most performances. Not only was she a trouper, but perhaps when her health began to slip, the idiosyncractic demands of "Love Letters" offered her the ideal way to continue practicing her craft -- the role encompassed a broad emotional range, but required her to remain seated throughout the performance.
Jose Quintero, who directed Miss Dewhurst in many O'Neill plays, recalls in his book, "If You Don't Dance They Beat You," that the first time he saw the actress, she was walking to a rehearsal: "She was in no hurry to get to the theater. After all, why should she? The theater would become a theater only when she got there." It is less of a theater now that she has left.